Supporting neurodiversity in the digital workplace

by | May 3, 2017 | Collaboration, Digital workplace

There is a very important article in the May-June issue of Harvard Business Review (pp96-103) on Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage. Many people with neurological conditions, such as autism spectrum, dyspraxia and dyslexia, have very well-developed skills in pattern recognition, memory and mathematics. There is a comment from SAP in the article that presents people like puzzle pieces, irregularly shaped. Historically companies have asked employees to trim away these irregularities because it is easier to fit people together if they are perfect rectangles. But that requires employees to leave their differences at home – differences that firms need in order to innovate. I see this in the marketing of collaboration applications, with references to groups of employees and never to the individual. This was a theme picked up by Chris Tubb at the recent Kongress Media IOM2017 event in which he remarked that we should be focusing on human benefit and not just productivity.

There are three perspectives we need to take on neurodiversity. The first is to make sure that ‘standard’ recruitment and training processes do not put people with a neurological condition at a disadvantage. These processes will of course not have been deliberately set up to do so but will use interviewing and perhaps role play in a way that these prospective employees may not be able to respond to and give of their best.

The second is to ensure that employees with neurological conditions are able to work effectively in a digital workplace. This is especially the case with dyslexia, a spectrum condition that could affect more than 1 in 10 employees. It is quite common for them to conceal the extent of their dyslexia as it still has connotations of being stupid and slow to learn. It is also very difficult for people without the condition to imagine what it must be like. We can have some sense of the challenges a blind or partially-sighted employee must have, or someone with poor motor control in their hands. There are some simulations of dyslexia which given at least an initial impression but cannot reproduce the frustration that people with the condition must have to cope with. Search result lists are especially difficult for them to read.

The third perspective is that we ensure these employees are able to use the special skills they have to innovate within the digital workplace in our organisation. However this can only happen if we take actions to mitigate barriers to access. As an example, In the UK we are seeing GCHQ recognise the contribution that employees with some of these neurological conditions are able to make in national and international cyber security. Take a look at the Specialiststerne Foundation set up by Thorkil Sonne if you need information and inspiration.

Please do make every effort to read this HBR article. It will probably change your own perspectives on neurodiversity and stimulate you and your colleagues to ensure your digital workplace accommodates their requirements and objectives. It may also change your attitude to people in your organisation who seem not to ‘fit in’ with your social norms. Remember that on average one in ten of your colleagues will be coping with their neurological situation, perhaps so well that to you it is invisible. To them it most certainly is not.

Martin White